Yearning to get away from it all? The beautiful Sanibel and Captiva islands are among the most spectacular places in all of Florida. Here you'll find shell-strewn beaches, a laid-back vibe, terrific restaurants, chic shops, flower-lined lanes, and an incredibly diverse array of wildlife—all of which combine to provide an abundance of wow moments. What you won't find here are amusement parks, traffic lights, billboard-lined highways, glaring neon, and tracts of high-rise condos. Amen. (See the islands on a map.)
Find the Perfect Shell
With more than 300 kinds of seashells, the islands of Sanibel and Captiva are a shell hunter's dream. Little kids are eternally fascinated with the quest for natural treasure and don't seem to mind the backbreaking stance known as the "Captiva crouch" or "Sanibel stoop." Warm Gulf waters and a typically calm surf make most of Sanibel's beaches great for families with small children. Come at low tide or after a storm for the best shelling.
Go Dolphin Spotting
Take a 90-minute excursion on the Lady Chadwick with Captiva Cruises and you're all but guaranteed to spy bottlenose dolphins leaping and frolicking in the waters of Pine Island Sound. Along the way, a naturalist narrator will point out local sights and natural landmarks and answer questions about wildlife. A bonus for families: The captain often invites kids to steer the boat and get a photo op in his captain's cap.
Explore on Two (or Three) Wheels
Like getting around on two wheels? With over 25 miles of paved, flat trails, Sanibel is a wonderful place for families to explore on bike. A variety of local rental outfitters offer bikes, tandems, trikes, and even canopied surreys, along with helmets and locks.
Enroll in Sea School
Got a budding marine biologist in your family? The acclaimed Sanibel Sea School offers morning and full-day programs that teach marine conservation through hands-on experiences to kids ages 6 to 13 (older teens can enroll in the adult program). Class subjects vary from day to day but may include fiddler crabs, fish seining, wading birds, or sea turtles. Be sure to sign up in advance; space is limited to 24 students a day and this is a very popular program.
Kayak Through a Mangrove Swamp
If your kids love nature, then this is a must. Tarpon Bay Explorers offers naturalist-led canoe and kayak trips in the J. N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge, where you might spy alligators, raccoons, otters, and hundreds of different kinds of birds. The 6,300-acre wilderness covers more than half of Sanibel Island and includes mangrove swamps, winding waterways, a two-mile boardwalk nature trail and a five-mile, one-way wildlife drive.
Have a Sanibel Scoop
A stop at Pinocchio's Italian Ice Cream (362 Periwinkle Way) is a Sanibel tradition. The kitschy shop at the east end of Sanibel is legendary for its delicious homemade Italian gelato. Thirty-seven flavors are made fresh daily from a repertoire of more than 130 flavors in total. Cute touch: Whether you order a cone or bowl, every serving is topped with an animal cracker.
Visit a Lighthouse
Since 1884, the Sanibel Lighthouse has stood the on Point Ybel at the eastern tip of Sanibel Island to mark the entrance to San Carlos Bay. While you can't access the lighthouse, the site features a great shelling beach, fishing pier, and nature trail. No trip to Sanibel is complete without a photo op at the lighthouse.
Savor a Spectacular Sunset
Facing due west on the Gulf of Mexico, Turner Beach is renowned for its spectacular sunsets. Take heed of the signs warning against swimming due to the swift currents but be sure to bring your camera to capture the magic. Turner Beach is located on both the Sanibel and Captiva sides of the Blind Pass Bridge.
Visit the Shell Museum
Can't tell an angel wing from a glassy bubble? The non-profit Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum features more than 30 exhibits of mollusks from around the world. The learning lab features a hands-on play area for children, displays, games, a tank with indigenous mollusks, and a children's video is shown continuously.
Hop a Ferry to the Most Incredible State Park
AddressCayo Costa State Park, Captiva, FL 33924, USA
Cayo Costa State Park features nine miles of beautiful beaches and acres of pine forests, oak-palm hammocks and mangrove swamps. You may spy manatees and pods of dolphins in the waters and, on the island, you can swim, snorkel, or take a ranger-led kayak tour or hike. The island park is accessible by ferry service from Captiva Island.